With more roasters moving into residential and mixed-use neighbourhoods, VortX KleanAir Systems is helping to affordably clean up stack emissions while improving safety and consistency.
Coffee roasting can be a dirty, difficult, and sometime dangerous business.
But as appreciation for specialty coffee grows and consumers look for new and local roasters to explore and taste different beans, more people are trying their hand at the tough but romantic industry.
Ron Kleist, President of VortX Klean Air Systems, saw this himself while President of American roaster manufacturer Loring.
“One of the things I’ve seen in the 11 years I’ve been in the industry is that specialty coffee roasting is moving closer and closer to where their customer bases are. Even if their business is selling broadly on the internet, they want that strategic advantage of having their roastery close to those buying their coffee,” Ron says.
This has led to coffee roasters popping up in new neighbourhoods and locations, far from the industrial and inner-city suburbs where they first flourished. While this has helped make coffee more accessible, there is also an increasing demand on roasters to clean up their stack emissions, especially as they move into residential and mixed-use neighbourhoods.
“The last thing you want to do is upset your neighbours,” Ron says. “Roasters want to get in close, but they can’t do that while pouring out smoke and odour. If you’re stuck buying an afterburner for a little five- or 10-kilogram roaster, you get killed on your operating costs.
“The biggest problem the industry has faced is control of the roast process and second to that is emissions. Most roaster makers have taken big steps towards controlling the roast process, improving their technology and working with the likes of [roasting software] Cropster. Now, with VortX, they can dramatically reduce visible smoke and noxious odour.”
In 2017, Ron came across a wet scrubber – a device that uses water to remove particles or gases from exhaust streams – that would work particularly well in coffee. He approached friend, coffee farm owner, and Boot Coffee CEO Willem Boot with the concept and the two partnered to bring the concept to life.
Their brainchild, the VortX Ecofilter, has introduced the water-powered cooling system into a conventional roasting cyclone, allowing roasters to precipitate out chaff, smoke, odour, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) from their exhausts. The water vapour captures the remaining droplets and particulates, bringing them down the cyclone and out the filtration system.
“We’ve hot-rodded a cyclone,” Ron says. “Over the last three years, we’ve gotten great responses from our customers and learned a lot about how to further control our process and make it easier for other people to understand and implement it.”
This system has enabled roasters to set up shop in neighbourhoods that were previously off limits. White Horse Coffee in Sutherland, New South Wales, was the first Australia roaster to take up the VortX EcoFilter, with Vanguard Coffee living up to its name as the first to install it in New Zealand in September.
Ron says Aharon Coffee in Beverly Hills, California, provides a great example of the neighbourhoods in which roasters can now open. “If you go one block down to Rodeo, there are multi-million-dollar homes with owners who never want to smell that coffee being roasted,” he says.
“We’ve even heard from a couple of our customers that, after installing the VortX, the neighbours would turn up and ask ‘did you go out of business? You’re not roasting anymore,’ because they couldn’t smell or see it.
“If they were roasting with nothing to mitigate smoke and odour, they can cut those emissions by 80 per cent or more with a properly installed VortX.”
The VortX Ecofilter is powered by an electric high-pressure pump, which Ron estimates costs about 25 cents an hour to run in Australia. This is significantly cheaper than gas-powered afterburners, which burn about 29 kilowatt-hours (Kwh) of natural gas per 100,000 British thermal units (BTU). Ron says a small afterburner with a 300,000 BTU burner will consume 87 Kwh at a cost of almost $9. So, a conventional afterburner for a one-bag roaster can consume up to 290 Kwh and cost almost $30 per hour in gas.
Ron says the savings even extend to labour costs, without compromising on safety and roast quality.
“With the VortX, you won’t have a stack or cyclone fire, and if there’s a fire in the roaster, it will be confined. That’s because the cyclone and stack stay clean all the time. You should inspect it once or twice a year to be safe, but our oldest customers have had their units in place for three years now and have never had to scrub out their stack. The benefits of that go far beyond labour savings,” he says.
“A big challenge for the roasting community is that airflow changes as contamination builds up in the ducting. You don’t want smoke to be sitting in your drum for any long period of time and if you’re using an afterburner, lighting it can suck air through the roast chamber too fast. Then you’re losing heat. With a VortX, you have more consistency because you’re able to evacuate the air in a consistent manner.”
Current Ecofilters are in use on roasters ranging from five- to 50-kilogram batch sizes. Ron says it only takes five to 15 minutes per day to maintain and clean it, drain the water, and clean out the chaff. VOC levels in the water from the VortX are below any known toxicity threshold, so the water is safe to repurpose for garden irrigation or pour down the drain.
“I’ve cupped the water before and it tastes like barley tea. I wouldn’t drink it regularly, but there’s nothing poisonous. In fact, it contains nutrients that can be used on a garden,” Ron says. “The chaff itself is compacted, so instead of a big bag of light, fluffy chaff, you have a few nutrient-dense chaff bricks that are easily sold to nurseries.”
The next step for VortX is to make the Ecofilter work for a roaster of any size.
Ron says discussions are underway with roaster manufacturers on how to effectively apply this system on roasters up to 120-kilogram in batch size.
“These larger roasters still need to have to have a cyclone, so if they can buy a VortX in place of a conventional cyclone and get rid of enough smoke and odour that they don’t need an afterburner, they could save a lot of money while saving the environment,” Ron says.
“When I first brought this idea to Willem, he said ‘yes’ immediately because of his commitment to environmental responsibility. He owns farms in Panama and is struggling as all farmers are with changes in the global climate. Every little bit we can do as people within coffee to slow down climate change benefits the millions of coffee farmers arounds the world.”
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.